Art vs Spectacle. Dialogue as a survival strategy

> Michał Bieniek, Anna Kołodziejczyk


Guy Debort wrote that the technology of spectacle enabled people to have a caricatural substitute of paradise on Earth. Postmodern society is a society of individuals. De iure individuals, but not yet de facto, as Zygmunt Bauman reminds us. Therefore so prone to manipulation, entangled in a web of consumerism and entertainment, subjected to the system of Debort’s Spectacle. The Spectacle which restores the endless array of (seeming) possibilities, promises much and successfully hides from the audience that fulfilling the desire is partial and brings little satisfaction; that it reveals nothing but another desire. For we, suspended in the eternal here and now, long today not for fulfillment, but for the Desire itself.

One of the indicators of postmodernity, according to Zygmunt Bau-man, is the loss of the so-called ‘common cause’ when confronted with individuals’ overwhelming desire to fulfil their personal cravings. A citizen is not the same as an individual. All that is collective and common after a thorough examination turns out to be just a set of unconnected, atomised individuals. A public space, understood as an agora, ancient forum, i.e. the space of ‘common cause’, dialogue and reaching compromise, is dying. The world is becoming a hotel.

Public places have emptied (we call them that way out of habit or for the lack of a better term). An age of post-public places, seemingly public or, as Bauman puts it, ‘public-but-not-hospitable’, that is ones which do not facilitate meeting and deeper understanding, has dawned. They are based on the ‘superfluousness of interaction’, interdictory, therefore ‘imperious because of indifference’ (according to Bauman, Parisian La Defense is a good example here) or subjected to the principle of consumerism, for consumers often stay in one place without social interacting. One always consumes in solitude, which, as Bauman observes, was brilliantly captured by Luis Bunuel in ‘The Phantom of Freedom’.

It seems justified to connect the death of public places with the split of ‘citizenship’ and ‘individuality’. Jorge Luis Borges, when interviewed by Osvaldo Ferrari for the Argentinian Radio Municiapal, said that ancient Greek dialogue was ‘civic’ because it was aimed at all the citizens of a polis. Nowadays, however, ‘people’ are being equated with plebeianism and not, as it used to be in ancient Greece, with a community of citizens (hence participants in dialogue). It would mean that consumer society (a society of individuals) is stratified, divided into a kind of ‘participants’ (‘administrators’) in social life — or what the Spectacle tells us to call ‘social life’ — and those who are denied participation (‘the commoners’, ‘the plebs’). This stratification is seeming, because the subject on which it was built is seeming. It is because of the principle of radical individuality and the overwhelming influence of the mechanisms of Spectacle that having a real dialogue which would involve the whole society becomes impossible (‘participation’ turns out to have purely prestigious, seeming character). The ‘dialogic’ space is destroyed through depriving it of its function. It is substituted with the quasi-space of a media spectacle. As an effect of the citizen’s departure and the growing need for defining the border between ‘us’ and ‘them’, we can observe — among other things — the strengthening of wrongly understood expert systems: hermetic, rigid, authoritarian (Borges would call them ‘imaginary disciplines’), which become part of a ‘wall’ behind which ‘that which is hidden’ remains. The real vocation of expert systems should be to ‘break the wall of the obvious and “that-which-goes-without-saying”, of this current ideological fashion whose universality is supposed to prove its rightness’. Ulrich Beck wrote that a kind of democracy which goes beyond ‘expertocracy’ is the one which ‘starts when the question of whether we want to live on the conditions we were offered comes up for open discussion and becomes a free choice’.

The leitmotif of contemporary art is the notion of systematic change, the lack of any solid forms, certainty. Everything moves, there is no beginning and no ending, no general direction nor tempo nor solid shapes (as befits Bauman’s ‘liquid’ modernity). Art becomes comprehensible for only a minority of specialists — Adorno claims that contemporary art is equally available to an average art lover as the latest nuclear physics achievements and therefore any esthetic experience is out of the question. The natural need for esthetic experiences is usually satisfied with unsophisticated stimuli, with what is pejoratively termed kitsch, entertainment or the ‘industry’ of mass culture (the mass society longs for entertainment, not culture). It stems from the fact that what contemporary art offers involves certain risk (the risk of cognition, so to say) — as it is the case with interactive art, which ‘forces’ us to take a decision which could be judged morally; sometimes the situations created by the artist enable us to understand our moral system better, to observe what shocks us, what we find unacceptable, what we would never do because of ethical considerations. The society of individuals, on the other hand, aims at eliminating all risk. The absence of the element of risk is guaranteed by entertainment and consumerism: ‘When adventure is devoid of risk, all that is left is pure, unalloyed entertainment’.

It must be also noticed that contemporary art — like virtually all forms of human activity — has been subjected to the postmodern process of ‘commoditising’, which is characterised with the ‘breakneck speed of their (goods, commodities) circulation and recycling, the speed with which they become obsolete, thrown away and substituted with new products’. (Experts’ hermetic discourse took the place of a salesman who labels goods with price and expiry date, verifies and ranks the products — according to the ‘changes on the market’ and what is fashionable at the moment). It turns out that the emergence of ‘the plebs’, who are so different from democratic principles, which was mentioned by Borges (in the case of art: levelling the audience with ‘plebeians’), has resulted from an increase in production and the need for new markets (in art, an unprecedented growth of the number of ‘producers’, artmakers could be observed). Bauman quotes Ch. Lasch, who says that in order to increase consumption it is necessary to make individuals dis-trust their tastes and opinions. There is a paradox about contemporary art: while its works claim cognitive aspirations and suggest discursiveness more and more often, direct acces to them is being limited (it is worth noticing that contact with a work of art is becoming unnecessary due to critics’ mediation, reviews etc.). The ‘resistance of art’ can be understood as a challenge posed to the audience by creating works in such a way that the contact with them not only provides little pleasure but forces to make the effort of interpreting. However, from a wider perspective it is visible that the attempt to create a new audience by negating their unassisted (based on education, obviously) cognitive abilities, or denying their critical power (substituting democracy with ‘expertocracy’) has failed. This new, failed audience will not rise to the challenge, will not make the effort of interpreting art. They have been given an alternative — safe, mass entertainment — which is the price culture and art had to pay for preserving their seemingly exclusive character, which is at odds with democratic principles. The only exclusiveness we should aim at in modern and postmodern times is one whose border would be identical with the border of the contemporary polls, inhabited by a community of citizens.

Art has shared the fate of entertainment — it has become a commodity (and it matters little that it is a commodity for the chosen ones only). Its cognitive, discursive character is losing with ‘the speed of circulation and recycling’. By becoming an indicator of social status, for example, art is subjected to the mechanisms of consumerism and the Spectacle; therefore, like entertainment, it loses significance. If art was a language, this language, like any other, could become dead. When intelectuals, like Roman Ingarden, are emphasising the role of education and communing with art works, or, like Hannah Arendt, are talking about ‘taste being an activity of a truly cultivated mind’, they should add to these instructions the necessity to give individuals back their lost right to taste, sacrificed at the altar of ‘providing people with commodities’. The right which — if it is to be more than seeming — can’t be mediated nor media-transmitted (therefore subjected to the Spectacle), but has to reinvent itself over and over again as a result of direct contact.

Public art, art in ‘public-but-not-hospitable’ places, seems to be at a major risk of being transformed into an extravaganza, a spectacle (sic!). Devoiding art of its institutional context might consign it to oblivion or equate it with entertainment, with circus. On the other hand, art-which-left-the-gallery contains a huge revealing charge because — being oriented at the audience — it is trying to establish contact with them, enter into a dialogue. And dialogue, as Krzysztof Rutkowski repeats after Debord, is the opposite of the Spectacle. If an artist trully is the last real individual in a mass society, as Arendt postulates, it can be so only because of the dialogue, because of ‘extra-spectacularity’. If, in addition, creating a worthy art work outside the insitutional space is possible only in the case of the artists who, as Anna Maria Potocka rightly observed, are ‘authentically addicted to other people’s attitudes and reactions’, whereas ‘artists who lack such addiction should never tamper with public space because whatever they create will be false and compromising’, then the essence (essentiality) of ‘institutional’ art can be saved only by the dialogic character of its public variant — by substituting ‘the plebs’ with audience-partners.

Art in post-public space may have all sorts of character. It is no accident that the so-called New Genre Public Art — art in public interest, temporary projects created with citizens’ participation, where an artistic stimulus leads to an uncontrolled development of action – is becoming an increasingly popular trend. Places which used to be called public may become an area of showing empathy, which is supposed to characterise any artist leaving the hermetic space of the ‘white cube’.

Zygmunt Bauman defines contemporary communities as ‘cloakroom-like’; they emerge as a result of a temporary unification against the perspective of ‘joint’ participation in a performance. The principle of radical individualisation (loneliness) of the post-modern human being is (seemingly) suspended: ‘(…) the audience going to a play wear special clothes, unlike the ones for everyday use (…) for the duration of the play the audience become more alike than outside the theatre. They were all driven here by the same evening play (a popular actor or the promise of having a good time), although each one of them is as different as their everyday activities and pastimes (…). But when the curtain falls for the last time, the audience take their belongings from the cloakroom, don their outerwear and momentarily disappear in the colourful crowd in the street — from which they emerged just a few hours before — returning to their everyday, so different roles’. Then we read: ‘In order to emerge, cloakroom communities need a spectacle which will arouse similar interest in very different people, unify them for some time and make them put aside, postpone or forget their other interests, which normally divide them instead of unifying’. Bauman likens the spectacles which have substituted ‘common interest’ and ‘common cause’ to Huxley’s ‘five minutes of (collective) adoration’.

It seems that ‘displaying’ art in non-hospitable, once public spaces, exposing the work of art to confrontation with an ‘unprepared audience’, situates this confrontation outside the mediating experts’ discourse and/or the ‘cloakroom community’ phenomenon. The surprise caused by the presence of a ‘foreign’, incongruous element may act as a trigger for dialogue, for going off the beaten track of consumer non-reality. It is not always possible. If Stanisław Drożdż’s work, presented on the facade of the Wrocfaw Opera building, remains unnoticed, it is not because — as Agata Saraczyńska claims — the projection area is too wide, but due to its fitting into the abandoned, post-public space, claimed by too many graphic signs which passers-by largely ignore. In spite of this, the effort art needs to make in order to reinvent itself in unfavourable conditions can have beneficial impact on the social life space, which will eventually become common and hospitable. The dialogic and ‘joining’ character of this effort might enable us to retain ‘the memory of the sense of being’ and make us leave the Spectacle Incarnated untouched — just like the Talmudic rabbi Akiba, mentioned by Krzysztof Rutkowski in ‘Ostatni Pasaż’, left the paradise untouched.